1616: Vincenz Fettmilch

Add comment February 28th, 2019 Headsman

Among the ancient remains, that which, from my childhood, had been remarkable to me, was the skull of a State criminal, fastened up on the tower of the bridge, who, out of three or four, as the naked iron spikes showed, bad, since 1616, been preserved in spite of the encroachments of time and weather. Whenever one returned from Sachsenhansen to Frankfort, one had this tower before one; and the skull was directly in view. As a boy, 1 liked to hear related the history of these rebels, — Fettmilch and his confederates, — how they had become dissatisfied with the government of the city, had risen up against it, plotted a mutiny, plundered the Jews’ quarter, and excited a fearful riot, but were at last captured, and condemned to death by a deputy of the emperor. Afterwards I fc!t anxious to know the most minute circumstance, and to hear what sort of people they were. When from an old contemporary book, ornamented with wood-cuts, I learned, that, while these men had indeed been condemned to death, many councillors had at the same time been deposed, becanse various kinds of disorder and very much that was unwarrantable was then going on; when I heard the nearer particulars how all took place, — I pitied the unfortunate persons who might be regarded as sacrifices made for a future better constitution. For from that time was dated the regulation which allows the noble old house of Limpurg, the Fiauenstein-honsc. sprung from a club, besides lawyers, tradespeople, and artisans, to take part in a goverument, which, completed by a system of ballot, complicated in the Venetian fashion, and restricted by the civil colleges, was called to do right, without acquiring any special privilege to do wrong.

Goethe

On this date* in 1616 the muffin man Vincenz Fettmilch was executed for a Frankfurt guild revolt that became a notorious anti-Jewish pogrom.

One of the crown jewels of the Holy Roman Empire, Frankfurt am Main was at this time a predominantly Lutheran city of some 20,000 souls, governed by a council comprising the city’s wealthy patricians to the exclusion of her merchants and artisans. The city also boasted one of Germany’s largest Jewish communities, consisting of well over 1,000 people concentrated in a quarter known as the Judengasse (“Jew Lane”); living in Frankfurt under imperial protection, Jews of course were subject at any given time to varying degrees of community anti-Semitism.

The small and almost accidental spark to light the Fettmilch conflagration began in 1612 when the accession of Emperor Matthias led to citizen petitions for an enumeration of civic rights and the patricianate suspiciously refused to supply the charters. The ensuing conflict brought a growing popular movement that “commanded support from a large cross-section of the city’s inhabitants,” writes Christopher Friedrichs.** “But from the outset a dominant role was assumed by one man: Vincenz Fettmilch, a citizen who had experimented with a number of occupations before becoming a pastry-baker. There is no question that Fettmilch was a dynamic and articulate leader — and a passionate foe of patricians and Jews alike.”

For many months did Fettmilch (the cursory English Wikipedia entry | the much better German) and the patricianate maneuver but the long and short of it was that the latter’s credibility to rule deteriorated fatally with damaging revelations of financial malfeasance. By 1614 the popular movement achieved the outright conquest of municipal power, forcing Frankfurt’s much-resented oligarchs to yield their governing posts to guildsmen.

Which also positioned Vincenz Fettmilch to effect his demand for rousting that huge Jewish population.

On August 22, 1614, a popular riot invaded and ransacked the Judengasse. Fettmilch himself issued the expulsion order the very next day. This event is one of the best known and most studied anti-Jewish pogroms in German history; it’s also recalled as one of the last such incidents before the Third Reich — for Fettmilchs did not commonly get the run of a city, and our Fettmilch did not enjoy his run for very long.

As imperial soldiers gathered for an order-restoring incursion that rebellious Frankfurt would be powerless to resist, Vincenz Fettmilch was summarily arrested later in 1614 by other Frankfurters, sparing the city a good deal of destruction and speedily collapsing the new order he had created. Fettmilch had over a year as a ward of the empire’s torturers before he with three associates was beheaded and quartered on February 28, 1616 — the same day that Frankfurt’s Jewish refugees were officially re-admitted back to the Judengasse.


Broadside of the punishment of Fettmilch and associates by Johann Ludwig Schimmel.†

From the time of Fettmilch to this day inconclusive debate has raged among historians and other Germans about how to weigh, interpret, and reconcile those two thrusts of the rebellion — the resistance to Frankfurt’s optimates, and the chauvinism against her Jewry.

* You’ll also find the date of March 10 in various sources; this 10-day discrepancy is that commonplace calendar complication, the Julian-Gregorian split. Frankfurt am Main was a free imperial city within the Holy Roman Empire, and while the empire had gone Gregorian from its introduction in 1582, the mostly Protestant Frankfurt (along with many other German states) stayed away from this papist device until 1700. Our dating here defers to the local Julian sentiment.

** Friedrichs, “The Fettmilch Uprising in German and Jewish History,” Central European History, June 1986.

† Image from Karl Harter in From Mutual Observation to Propaganda War: Premodern Revolts in Their Transnational Representations; that author contextualizes the scene as follows:

In the middle of the picture we see the scaffold set up at the market place of Frankfurt cordoned by heavily armed soldiers and railings with posts showing the imperial eagle: The punishment of the rebels is taking place within the separated legal space of the empire, where only the delinquent, the executioner, the judge and several officials (representative of the imperial commission) and the soldiers appear. The city council and the representatives of the guilds on the two platforms in the centre of the background as well as the burghers of Frankfurt surround that space, watching from the outside. The executioner decapitates one of the delinquents, the recently severed finger of whom can be seen in front of him. The dismembering of the finger – the Schwurfinger – clearly points at the illegal conjuration or conspiracy in terms of penal law. Two more decapitated corpses of ringleaders are positioned on the scaffold. In the background on the left, outside the city three gallows are set up; one with a corpse hanged at the feet and another exposing part of quartered corpse. Both death penalties — reverse hanging and quartering — are typical of the aggravated and infamous punishment of treason. In the case of the Fettmilch-revolt, the four main ringleaders were dismembered, decapitated, quartered and parts of their corpses were exposed at the gallows outside of town. Furthermore, their heads were impaled and exposed on the gate tower on the Rhine side, which was the main entrance to the city, depicted with the four decapitated heads and a super-sized imperial eagle in the left background of the broadsheet. The symbolic implication, communicated and enhanced by the broadsheet, is quite obvious: The ringleaders and the revolt are to be commemorated as a serious political crime. This was emphasized by the total demolition of Fettmilch’s house shown in the foreground of the illustration on the right and the infamous shaving, flogging and banning of his family depicted in the background on the right: the total social disintegration and exclusion of the main ringleader — comprising his family, his name, his house — for eternal memory (“zum ewigen Gedächtnuß”). Apart from the ringleaders and their families, the punishment of other rebels (17 associates and followers) by flogging and banning, shown in the background on the left, seems almost lenient. In addition to the punishment of the rebels, the restitution of the legal and imperial order is represented by the re-entry of the Jewish community in form of a procession, just passing the scaffold.

All other broadsides dealing with the punishment of the rebels depict the same scene and make use of similar iconic elements: scaffold, armed soldiers, imperial posts and eagle, the dismembering of the Schwurfinger and decapitation, the tower with the heads, the gallows with the quartered corpses, whipping and expulsion, the demolition of the house, the re-entry of the Jews etc.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Businessmen,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Germany,Gibbeted,History,Holy Roman Empire,Martyrs,Popular Culture,Public Executions,Revolutionaries,Torture,Treason

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